As the 19th century draws to a close, Nell's life is threatened by a classic case of anorexia brought on by conscientious adherence to a philosophy articulated by Emerson: ""The only gift is a portion of thyself."" Robust, hard-working Nell (18) seems the perfect farm daughter, whose only transgression is occasional high-spirited romping with her best friend, neighbor Rob, 17. Times are hard; her parents see a solution to their own problems in marrying her to widower Anson, who needs a mother for his child. Nell agrees reluctantly; she yearns to go to college; her impressions of sex are derived from observing farm animals and evading the leering, wife-abusing hired man at Rob's farm; she and Anson have little in common, whereas Rob's company elicits laughter and wild dares. Nell begins to withdraw, eating less, forcing her malingering sister Eliza to take over her chores, while Nell makes a quilt with scraps believed to be from her feminist grandmother's extensive wardrobe. As she diminishes, she and Eliza exchange roles; and not until the book's last page do we know whether Nell's innate joy will have the power to restore her to life. Nell's story is pieced together with as much care as the brilliant quilt that stands as a powerful symbol at its center, each character embroidered with telling, authentic detail. As a portrait of a competent, talented woman ensnared by an ordinary, loving family (with the help of a doctor who prescribes less brain work, and medicines that seem to be laced with alcohol and laudanum), it is chilling. This might have been Jo March, or Emily Dickinson, or any of us. An enthralling dramatization of the need for self-definition.